After spending 10 years leading The Attractions, and subsequently investigating every kind of music that has ever been pulled under the umbrella of pop or rock, Elvis Costello is increasingly drawn to classical music. He has become an avid habitué of the Royal Festival Hall, and a benefactor and familiar face at the Wigmore Hall. He travelled around the country to catch concerts by the Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli whom he regards with barely concealed adulation. He rearranged his promotional commitments for his collaborative venture with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, to ensure that he missed none of Andras Schiff's current series of Schubert piano concertos at the Wigmore.
Only five years ago, Costello was identified with splenetic anti-love songs like Alison, the apocalyptic threat of Tokyo Storm Warning, or politically charged tracts like Oliver's Army or Tramp The Dirt Down. Now, "the self-taught songwriter and singer Declan McManus", as he describes himself in the booklet accompanying The Juliet Letters, seems driven to saturate himself in this new environment of cadenzas and coloratura, to learn and absorb as much as he can in order to push himself forward into another phase of his own musical development. Costello wants to prove he can do it.
"I'm not fed up with rock groups, only fed up with the concerts," he explains. "I kept going to concerts and it would be the same ritual happening. Even with artists I liked, there would be moments of inspiration but nobody ever seemed to take many chances. Therefore it almost becomes like a holy rite, but without the quality to really justify that."
With rock music running out of tricks, he now finds the nuances of expression which a performer can wring from a written classical score far more gripping. "I go to everything," Costello says. "I would say string quartets and lieder recitals would be my favourite things. I go to the opera occasionally, more to see a particular singer in a particular piece whose voice I really like, rather than necessarily all the spectacle. I'm not much impressed by the production side of nearly anything I see in London."
Costello's connection with the Brodsky Quartet grew out of mutual concert-going. Elvis and his wife, former Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan, went to hear the Brodskys play Shostakovich, Bartok and Beethoven, while Costello learned later that some of the Brodskys had attended his London shows.
"From the first afternoon we met, we were discussing the possibility of collaboration," Costello remembers. "It was a very natural thing. We'd meet and sit around. I'd say have you ever heard this song? If they hadn't and I couldn't play it, I'd go and make a tape of some record of somebody singing something, and we just got a musical language that was suggested by all of these things that we responded to on an emotional, spiritual level. On an intellectual level, probably least of all."
The Juliet Letters does not yield itself up without a struggle, and anyone expecting to find thematic continuity with the Costello back catalogue will be thoroughly bamboozled. Billed as "a song sequence for string quartet and voice", the Letters germinated from a newspaper story discovered by Mrs Costello about an academic in Verona who assumed the task of answering letters addressed by members of the public to Juliet Capulet. If people can convince themselves that The Archers or the cast of Coronation Street are real, why not Shakespearean heroines?
Intense brainstorming sessions between the five musicians produced many permutations of types of letters and the people who might have written them - love letters, suicide notes, cries for helps, chain letters, advertising handouts, imaginary letters never posted, postcards.
"We're drawing in people's experience and each quartet member's voice, particularly in the song that have got many collaborators on the lyrical side," says Costello. "One of the best ways to work was for one person, namely myself, to be the editor. Everybody would come with these things and I'd say 'that's great, that bit, that whole paragraph there is really the way his character speaks, and it can be juxtaposed with this'. Little by little it came to make up a text."
Costello and his new musical partners broke in The Juliet Letters with a couple of discreet live performances, both to get some response from an audience and to knock the piece into shape before taking it into the recording studios. They were encouraged by the results, though despite Costello's terse dismissal of the value of anything critics might have to say about him ("I couldn't care less"), at least one of the Brodskys feels apprehension about the possible reactions from a wider audience.
"We took it to a bastion of classical music, Dartington, which is a famous old-established summer school," says viola player Paul Cassidy. "We thought that would be a good place to give it a real test, and people embraced it. The problem is the people who are going to look at it in a cynical way, and just think 'ah well it's that Brodsky Quartet, another one of their gimmicks, and oh, it's that Elvis Costello guy, he's tried everything, he might as well try that'. You can't win with those people. They're not going to give it a chance."
Early reactions are mixed - the Los Angeles Times liked the disc, the Independent didn't. Not that the Letters was ever going to be a mainstream, crossover success, given its cerebral theme and demanding structure. Before you even begin to dig into the lyrics and the arrangements, you have to get used to the relationship between the classical playing of the Quartet and the markedly un-classical rasp of Costello's voice. The musical echoes of Elgar, Schubert, Michael Nyman, Strawberry Fields, Kurt Weill and more would stretch a classically trained multi-octave voice, let alone Costello's.
Anyone who considers that Costello is just a pop tunesmith with delusions of intellectual grandeur will not be dissuaded by tomorrow night's BBC 2 programme about the making of the album, in which the musicians are presented and lit like exhibits in an art gallery. Costello insists the film is "beautiful", though Paul Cassidy admits the carefully styled formalism worried him considerably.
But it's inaccurate to dismiss the Brodskys as yet another fashionable foursome to have sprung up in the wake of the Kronos Quartet, just as it's wrong to dismiss The Juliet Letters as a piece of gimmickry. The Brodskys have been playing together for 20 years, and even though they wear clothes by designer Issey Miyake, they're rooted in the classical repertoire rather than in so-called "new music".
Costello took his new-found responsibilities seriously enough to teach himself to read and write music, and has mastered enough of the complexities of arrangement to write and score a piece for a chamber music ensemble which includes strings and woodwinds. "Elvis knows more about classical music than we do," observes Brodsky violinist Michael Thomas.
The quintet's performance of the Letters at Dartington was a milestone for Costello, the bandleader's son from Liverpool who left school at 16 to become a computer programmer for the Elizabeth Arden company. " I never went to college or anything like that, I never went to university, so it was like a little flavour of university life, sitting on the croquet lawn on a sunny afternoon or in the pissing rain. It was very enjoyable and there were lots of great concerts. There were musicans all around y'know, a real hot-house atmosphere, and when we played to that audience there were people from different areas of the classical world - opera, electro-acoustic music, contemporary composition, medieval music, whatever."
If he'd attended music school 20 years earlier, how might things have been different? "I didn't go, so it doesn't matter, does it?" he replies irascibly. "But it's not like I suddenly got converted to classical music like St Paul. It all goes back to my parents, my dad being a professional musician and bringing so much different music into the house. My mother sold records so she had a knowledge of classical music, because in the era of 78s, you had to be a lot more like a librarian than a checkout girl. You had to know about the comparative versions of pieces of music, and recommend them. Customers damn well expected people in the shop to know. So she came from that era and she used to work as an usher at the Philharmonic in Liverpool, and she took me to concerts when I was little."
Living in Liverpool, there was no way the young Declan McManus could shield himself from the dazzling impact of the Beatles, even if he wanted to. He started writing songs when he was 15, and after tentative early appearances in folk clubs he joined country-rockers Flip City in 1976. He sent some demo tapes to Jake Riviera's new-born Stiff label. Riviera offered him a deal, suggested he change his name to Elvis Costello, and remains his manager to this day. His opinions about Elvis's classical aspirations are not on record.
Without wishing to lean too heavily on Field Notes For Psychoanalysts, it's reasonable to surmise that Costello's articulacy, intelligence and encyclopaedic knowledge of country, jazz, rock, R&B and classical music make him feel that anything anybody else can do, he can do better and probably quicker. During a weekend off from working on The Juliet Letters, he sat down on a park bench and began dashing off songs for the debut solo album by Wendy James, once of Transvision Vamp. He started on Friday evening, and had 10 songs finished by Sunday night.
Recognition from the "serious" establishment is more important to him than he'd admit, though he knows that such recognition is habitually awarded to complete mediocrities, and certainly won't help him to be a better musician. In any event, he's not short of work.
"I'm getting to the point where I have to say, 'I want to do this, but it'll be in 1995'. Then there's the constant interest in writing songs for other people, either specific commissions or mad things where you just dash off songs. It's busy, but that's what I do, that's my job. Elvis isn't really as humble as that would suggest, but he will still be pursuing his craft in 20 years' time.
The Juliet Letters is on BBC 2 tomorrow at 9:25pm. Warner Bros releases The Juliet Letters' album on January 18.